An Appreciation of Big Star
Lionised by Teenage Fanclub, adored by REM's Peter Buck, covered by The Bangles (!) and namedropped by Primal Scream and Nirvana, Big Star are possibly the greatest success that never was, and, like the similarly influential Velvet Underground, have been tempted out of retirement and dodgy solo careers to trundle their inexplicably-non hits around the country's venues (not, praise be, including Wembley). But who were/are they?
Guitarist and lead singer Alex Chilton graduated through the usual succession of high school bands, developing his love for soul music and finally singing Stax-style R & B with Ronnie and the DeVilles. This band had metamorphosed into the Box Tops by 1967, and they were enticed to Chips Moman's American Recording Studio (where Elvis made his critically acclaimed series of 'Memphis' albums in the late sixties). There, Dann Penn gave them a song called "The Letter", which became a hit both in Britain (reaching number five) and America. Chilton's gruff, gravelly voice and the gimmicky production with jet plane sound effects helped it to sell over four million copies. Follow up singles (including "Neon Rainbow", "Soul Deep" and "Cry Like A Baby") and albums were less successful, as the band gradually became a vehicle for Chilton and Penn's increasingly sophisticated productions. Despite extensive touring, the records often only featured Chilton and session musicians. In late 1969 he stormed offstage halfway through a gig, and the band were finished.
Meanwhile Chris Bell, a guitarist who orbited around Memphis studios, was playing with a band called Ice Water, whose membership included bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens. They played British and American pub rock, along with a few Bell originals. After an abortive attempt at a solo career, Alex Chilton joined Ice Water, who soon after changed their name to Big Star, the name of a supermarket opposite the studios where their debut album was being prepared.
That debut album, named as ironically as the band themselves, was "#1 Record", one of the most remarkable, and remarkably ignored, sets of the decade, or indeed any decade. Alex's penchant for soul, early Todd Rundgren and mid-period Brian Wilson merged perfectly with Chris Bell's love of British Invasion and beyond pop. It could be (lazily and inadequately) described as American band play "Rubber Soul", but there are traces of The Who, The Byrds, The Kinks, Beach Boys and myriad others in its grooves. There's the beautiful melodies of "The Ballad Of El Goodo" and "Thirteen", the rock-out that is "Don't Lie To Me" and the stunning closing acoustic trilogy of "Try Again", "Watch The Sunrise" and "ST 100/6". The wonderfully clear production only adds, acoustic guitars have an unheard of density, and Jody Stephens' drumming clatters like an unhappy Keith Moon throughout. Released in April 1972, inept distribution led to "#1 Record" selling only 2000 copies at the time. Today, it stands as a beacon in an otherwise uninspiring era, and its ownership should be compulsory.
Following the release and disappearance of the album, tensions in the group flared. Bell wanted the group to remain in the studio, Chilton wanted them to be a live act, and at the end of the year Chris Bell left. He went on to record a solo album, "I Am The Cosmos", which remained unreleased at the time of his death in a car crash in December 1979. Rather optimistically called 'the fourth Big Star album' in some quarters, it was finally issued in 1992.
The departure left Alex free to concentrate on his own particular vision of rock 'n' roll perfection with the now trio Big Star. What gigs they played were haphazard and messy, and the group eventually collapsed, Chilton concentrating on a second stab at a solo career. Invited to play at a local rock writers' convention, the response to Chilton, Hummel and Stephens' performance was so positive that they decided to make the reunion permanent, and work began on the second Big Star album, "Radio City".
Conventional rock wisdom dictates that "Radio City" is superior to their debut. I'm not so sure. It's definitely far rawer, the sheen that Chris Bell brought to "#1 Record" is conspicuously absent, but in comparison with that towering album it seems slightly dashed off and throwaway. Not that it isn't still wonderful of course, even if Chilton has been sacrilegiously dismissive about his contributions in recent interviews. The melodies get more complicated and sinewy, twisting and turning like twisty turny things, as Black Adder might've said (or "twisted harmony" as Peter Buck calls it), best demonstrated on "Back Of A Car". Elsewhere "I'm In Love With A Girl" is Chilton's simplest and most honest love song, "Morpha Too" is lyrically indecipherable (i.e. vague) but has a wonderful, almost childish, piano melody, "Mod Lang" is the band's Stones tribute, and "September Gurls" is probably their most famous song, as those of you who've heard it desecrated by The Bangles will appreciate.
Released in January 1974, once again inept distribution sabotaged the album's (well deserved) chance of success, and the disappointment renewed friction within the group. Bassist Andy Hummel quit, leaving Alex and Jody to embark on a short East Coast tour with new recruit John Lightman. Returning to the studio they embarked on the recording of what was to become their most tortured and tortuous opus yet, variously titled "Big Star 3", "The Third Album", "Femme Fatale" and "Sister Lovers".
Recorded in 1975, but not released until 1978, "Third/Sister Lovers" (as the latest and allegedly definitive reissue calls it) took its title from the fact that at the time Alex and Jody were dating two sisters (it also crops up in Jefferson Airplane's "Triad"). The album was never properly finished and a final running order not decided, added to which different record companies in different countries took to pulling different tracks from the sessions and habitually remixing them. It's one of rock's ultimate 'downer' albums, ranking alongside such other career curtailers as Lou Reed's "Berlin" and Neil Young's "Tonight's The Night" in the harrowing intensity stakes.
By this time Chilton seemed broken, his vocals more falling-down than laid-back. At its most coherent it plays the same rough and ready rock and roll as "Radio City", for example "For You" and "You Can't Have Me", but elsewhere the songs test the listener's stamina to breaking point. Best bits, if that's an appropriate term, are "O, Dana", the bitter "Holocaust", the strung-out Mellotron-backed "Kangaroo", the freewheeling tumble of "Stroke It Noel" (the Noel in question being one of the string players on the track, a friend of Alex's father), and the ultimate epitaph of "Take Care". Helped by producer Jim Dickinson, the album uses new instruments such as the aforementioned Mellotron and strings, reeds and woodwinds, making Chilton's fractured horrorshow soundscape all the more unnerving. "Sister Lovers" is without a doubt my favourite Big Star album...but then again "Berlin" is my favourite Lou Reed album.
After the sessions for the third album ground to a halt, Big Star were effectively finished. Chilton's long-delayed solo career finally shuddered into being, but, coinciding with a decade of drink-and-drugs type oblivion it didn't elicit the same kind of critical adulation as his former group had enjoyed.
In the late eighties a new generation of bands began namedropping Magic Alex, the Memphis mauler as an inspiration, Teenage Fanclub's excellent "Bandwagonesque" album being perhaps the best example, a tribute not only to Big Star but to the early 70s in general. Alex recorded a cover of his "Free Again" with them in 1992. In 1993, Big Star were once again invited to perform live, just as they had done twenty years earlier for the rock writers convention, at Missouri University, and the results can be found on the just released "Columbia: Live At Missouri University 4/25/93" CD and cassette (something missing there, perhaps??). Four months later they played an identical set at the Reading Festival (see elsewhere for fawning fan-type adulation unsuccessfully disguised as an impartial review), assisted by two members of The Posies. A charity single collaboration with Teenage Fanclub has just been released by the NME. Even if the return of Big Star was only for the filthy lucre, their profile has never been higher...it may have taken over two decades, but Alex and Jody might finally live up to their name.
1972 #1 RECORD Big Beat WIK 53
1974 RADIO CITY Big Beat WIK 54
(#1 RECORD and RADIO CITY are available on one CD, Big Beat CDWIK 910)
1978 THIRD/SISTER LOVERS Rykodisc RCD 10220
Kizza Me/Thank You Friends/Big Black Car/Jesus Christ/Femme
BIG STAR & ALEX CHILTON SOLO Beale Street Green (Sykodisc)
BIG STAR Columbia Live At Missouri University 4/25/93 (Zoo)
I have a sneaky feeling that "Beale Street Green" is possibly not the most, uh, legitimate CD release in the land. My suspicions probably centre around the label name and catalogue number (Sykodisc SCD 1022X), which are not unlike an affectionate parody of those of Rykodisc’s two official Big Star issues (RCD 10220 and RCD 10221). Heck, even the typeface on the spine is the same. Sadly Sykodisc (a Berlin label, that much they admit to) haven’t managed to source some of Rykodisc’s trademarked green-tinted plastic jewel cases, but in all other respects the packaging is the sincerest of flatteries.
And if "Beale Street Green" is a bootleg, then it gives that ropey genre a substantial boost, because it has everything you could hope for - but rarely receive - from a proper release: 75 minutes of music, informative sleevenotes and plentiful attention to detail (the title is one allegedly mooted for what became "Third/Sister Lovers", and the sleeve photographs are by ‘the celebrated American photographer William Egglestone’, also responsible for the cover shot on the band’s live reunion album raved about below).
To the music, then. What you get is ten Big Star tracks and 13 of Alex Chilton’s solo tunes (demos, outtakes and live tracks). To dispense with the latter as quickly and painlessly as possible, they are some distance from essential, coming closest to musical on covers of The Seeds’ "Can’t Seem To Make You Mine", "Train Kept A Rollin’", "Mona" and his own "September Gurls", recorded with The dBs, a song so resilient that even The Bangles couldn’t quite ruin it. The least listenable of this sorry selection are a hideous, stoned desecration of The Beach Boys’ "Surfer Girl" and "Tennis Bum", a song that Chilton wisely denies ever doing. All of which is a stern reminder of the aural torture that awaits any poor soul foolish enough to consider purchasing an Alex Chilton solo album.
But those Big Star tracks...hotcha! A Chris Bell-penned instrumental outtake from the "#1 Record" sessions ("Another Time, Another Place, And You"), the rougher, live-in-the-studio single version of "In The Street", and eight tracks’ worth of soundchecking for the radio session that would eventually be released by Rykodisc nearly two decades later: the same incendiary, snake-hipped blast through alternative pop classics such as "Back Of A Car", "Mod Lang", "She’s A Mover", "You Get What You Deserve" etcetera etcetera as the "Live" CD documents, except recorded to multitrack, not the botched two-track master that album was compiled from. Whilst on the subject of sound quality, the sonics on "Beale Street Green" vary from stunning (for a CD) on that instrumental opener to painfully thumpsome and accompanied by what sounds like a rainstorm on some of the Chilton tracks. But hey, were you really going to play them twice?
"Columbia", meanwhile, is a perfectly legit CD of the 1993-style Big Star’s reunion gig, now cruelly only available as an American import. The story goes that a college radio station in Columbia, Missouri, asked whether Jody Stephens and Alex, the only constants during Big Star’s turbulent half-decade or so of existence, would consider doing a set at their annual Springfest, and this, rounded out by Jonathan Auer and Ken Stringfellow, two hired hands from The Posies (then, along with Teenage Fanclub, the true keepers of the spirit of "#1 Record" and "Radio City", now just another average post-grunge American rawk band) is the result.
The line-up, the songs, the high points and the mistakes are all familiar, having seen them replicated at Big Star’s first British gig at that year’s Reading Festival (gloat, gloat), still, give or take the odd Blue Nile concert, one of the best performances I’ve ever had the privilege of witnessing. What that means is a round dozen of the best three-minute pop songs ever written, all rendered slightly sloppily but devastatingly effectively: Alex’s occasionally flat singing and the way whoever’s guitar has been panned to the left on this recording occasionally crashes catastrophically out of a song only add to the charm. There’s two covers as well, both T.Rex’s "Baby Strange" and Todd Rundgren’s "Slut" suggesting that Alex lives in a world that is permanently 1972-shaped...unlike Jody Stephens, who ascends to the acme of hip by wearing an Afghan Whigs t-shirt.
Best bits? Being able to hear the vicious lyrics of "Daisy Glaze" properly for the first time. The way Alex sounds bleary- rather than blue-eyed when singing "The Ballad Of El Goodo" 21 years later. The version of the Chris Bell’s "I Am The Cosmos", the title track of his posthumously-released album. "Back Of A Car" and "September Gurls", again. Worst bits? Only two tunes from the landmark "Third/Sister Lovers" album, and the performances of "O My Soul" and "13", which are indicated on the setlist reproduced in the booklet but which didn’t make it as far as the album.
And that, save the British tour and a joint single with Teenage Fanclub recorded for the NME, was it. Alex went solo again and reverted to the kind of sporadic, erratic and shambolic club gigs that he’s been playing for at least the last two decades. The Posies turned to sludge-rock, Teenage Fanclub went to The Byrds. But what carn’t be denied, and which both these CDs make every effort, albeit in different ways, to prove, is that the band that was Big Star left us with a shiny legacy of a few dozen gorgeous pop moments, songs that will not date. In the early 90s the Chicago Tribune called them "the most influential group in pop music outside The Beatles". Can you really afford to ignore them any longer?
BIG STAR Nobody Can Dance (Norton)
Nearly a quarter of a century after their untidy dissolution previously unreleased Big Star artefacts continue to bubble and scrape their way towards a hungry public. Last year gave us the "Beale Street Green" set of rarities, demos and Chilton solo material: "Nobody Can Dance" includes that album’s rehearsal session for the 1974 WLIR-FM radio gig preserved for posterity on Rykodisc’s fabulous "Live" CD, alongside seven tracks recorded in May 1974 at the Overton Park Shell in Memphis, apparently whilst headlining at a benefit gig for a local radio station. (Other bands on the bill, evidently treated even less kindly than Big Star by rock history, included D Beaver & Combinations, Blue Racer, Interstate 55 and Confederation).
Maybe I’m not the ideal person to give a balanced assessment of this CD, especially after it scored a derogatory 5/10 in the NME, but "Nobody Can Dance" is terrific, in a predictable sort of way. Predictable in the sense that with a set drawn almost exclusively from the recently released (and recently totally ignored) "Radio City" album not even The Smurfs could screw up, and excellent in the sense that no matter how many different versions I have of certified classics like "Mod Lang", "September Gurls" and "O My Soul" there’ll always be room on the shelves for one more. Surprises arrive in the form of a cover of T. Rex’s "Baby Strange", a song played during their 1993 reunion tour and accompanying CD but here presented for the first time in a version by the original band, and a drowsy, laconic version of "The Letter", from the depths of Alex Chilton’s dodgy pop past.
"Nobody Can Dance" is not the perfect introductory Big Star package: there’s far too much duplication between the two sets presented here, so newcomers would still be best advised to head for Big Beat’s "#1 Record/Radio City" CD or Rykodisc’s definitive issue of "Third/Sister Lovers". But, having acquired the taste for perfect three-minute pop in such a painless fashion, you may view "Nobody Can Dance" as a natural next step.
BIG STAR In Space (DBK Works)
The apotheosis of a cult band, Big Star recorded three brilliant albums in the first half of the 1970s, charting a course that took them from chiming power pop to wracked desolation and emotional open-heart surgery. (You’ll find the latter two on “Third/Sister Lovers”: failing to gain a release on its completion, it ranks as the finest album I’ve yet had the privilege of hearing.) There have been sporadic reunions in the intervening decades – I went to the 1993 Reading Festival specifically to pay homage to a Big Star that consisted of the band’s original singer/songwriter/guitarist Alex Chilton and drummer Jody Stephenson, backed up by half The Posies. That line-up has finally been enticed into a studio, and, thirty years after “Third/Sister Lovers”, “In Space” is the result.
Proceedings don’t begin too badly. “Dony” is slightly stodgy guitar rock caught stylistically between the tight “#1 Record” and the loose “Radio City”. You can practically hear the paunch rippling, but which of us is still in complete possession of their twentysomething sparkle? Jim Spake’s saxophone outburst seems rather clumsy, though. “Lady Sweet” is a not unappealing slice of wrong-footing balladry, but given that it features a Posy singing a Posies co-write you might as well be listening to a Posies album. Delivering a slightly curdled version of the band’s twisted pop, “Best Chance” sounds like a hot Big Star tribute act taking faltering steps at writing their own material. “Turn My Back On The Sun” is a shockingly clumsy “Pet Sounds” pastiche, from the “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” intro to the “ba ba ba” backing vocals. “Love Revolution” offers unexpected comedy respite, as Alex gets the funk out and storms the disco barricades. Painful as it is to accept the man who wrote “Holocaust” voicing dreck like “Get up and groove y’all/Shake that funky thing/Party down” I never fail to get a kick out of his loudhailed manifesto: “We want a platform…We want some platforms”. “February’s Quiet” is the closest “In Space” comes to the kind of Big Star I adore: the lyrics might verge on the banal, but this gentle and affectionate piece could almost have brightened the corners of “Third/Sister Lovers”. It’s not a shocking surprise to see The Olympics’ “Mine Exclusively” covered here, given that Alex and Jody recorded a version with Teenage Fanclub for a 1993 NME single. It sounds like the work of a hungry, raucous garage band, the kind of noise that even the old Big Star rarely made.
Unfortunately, from this point on you can almost hear Chilton’s interest ebbing away. “A Whole New Thing” and “Do You Wanna Make It” are sub-Kim Fowley 60s exploitation tat, which is indeed a whole new thing for this band. “Aria, Largo” is a bizarre classical/beat group crossover, a cover of a work by 17th century French composer Georg Muffat, and I wonder whether the simplistic pop of “Hung Up With Summer” might’ve been better directed towards The Box Tops’ reunion album. “Makeover” is Chilton reading his junk mail over an aimless funky jam.
The real problem with “In Space”, though, is writ large on the masthead. It could’ve been the greatest work of Alex Chilton’s wilfully erratic solo career. As it is, however, it besmirches the previously unsullied Big Star name.
BIG STAR Third (Omnivore)
Big Star’s third has been my favourite album practically since I first heard its Rykodisc incarnation (“Third/Sister Lovers”) nearly 20 years ago. Its mood of chaos and gloom was probably an accurate reflection of the band’s status at the time of its 1974 recording, fragmented and crushed by commercial disinterest. By now reduced to a nucleus of singer/guitarist Alex Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens, around whom orbited a loose group of contributors that included producer Jim Dickinson and guitarist Steve Cropper, the duo kept recording and recording as if vainly trying to ward off the inevitable conclusion, which arrived when their label boss pulled the plug and had these tattered remnants of recordings fashioned into some form of releasable album. Test pressings were created in some quantity, but general apathy on the part of both label and band meant it remained unheard for another three years until 1978, when the first of many semi-official versions of the album appeared. With no two variants agreeing on content, running order, cover art or even title, it’s joined the ranks of The Beach Boys’ “Smile” as one of those rare classic albums without a definitive, artist-approved edition. Rykodisc’s 1992 CD stakes a claim to being as close to the genuine article as possible, being supervised by Dickinson and comprehensively bundling up all the tracks that had appeared on the various “Third”s to date.
Now, however, comes another “Third”, with equally compelling claims to authenticity. Produced specifically for Record Store Day, a contrivance that conspires to tempt the populace back into its local independent record shop mostly through the medium of overpriced 7” singles, is the Test Pressing Edition of “Third”. Pressed at RTI, one of America’s finest record plants, on 180 gram vinyl, it is, as the cover sticker breathlessly informs, “Cut from the original analog assembly reel, on the same lathe that cut the 1975 test pressing, by the original engineer, Larry Nix, in his mastering room at the legendary Ardent Studios in Memphis”. It also “Contains replicas of the tracking sheets, lead sheets and mastering card.” Additionally, of the limited run of 2,000 copies, five contain copies of original test pressings, a golden ticket if ever there were.
Well, despite the fact that I was within strolling distance of my local independent record store on Record Store Day, I passed. “What do I need another “Third” for?” I reasoned to myself. I’ve managed to purge my collection of multiple copies of anything that isn’t “Bookends”, Dylan, by The Blue Nile or was cheap enough to justify purchase for in-car entertainment purposes. Manifestly, none of the above applied to this new “Third”. Of course, I then spent much of the next week reading on the interweb about how brilliant the Test Pressing Edition was, so was extremely fortunate that, on turning the remains of their Record Store Day exclusives over to the general public a week after the day itself, my local independent record store had a copy left for me to frantically mail-order.
I’m glad I did. The Test Pressing Edition of “Third” isn’t the perfect representation of this material. Having grown up with the Rykodisc version its sequencing seems alien to me, as are some of its track selections. The packaging is also a bit flakey: the box itself and the greaseproof paper pouch that contains its “Live At Leeds”-style bounty of reproduced ephemera are both a tight fit around their contents, and feel destined to be not long for this world in a way that makes me wish I’d snagged a second copy to keep sealed against posterity. I’m not yet convinced about the sound quality, despite its audiophile creds: some songs sound a bit harsh and grating compared with the versions etched upon my memory, although I’ll allow that I’ve never heard the album’s ballads sound so lush and expansive; they positively bloom here.
What about the music, then? Well, I can’t be objective about it: I adore this album in any form, and the Test Pressing Edition is just another indulgent excuse to be swept along by it all over again. The new/old, or at least different, sequencing and track selection makes it an adventure anew, though. Instead of the relatively conventional altered power pop of “Kizza Me” and “Thank You Friends”, the test pressing opens with the elegant, mysterious lurch of “Stroke It Noel” before plunging the listener remorselessly into “Downs”, perhaps wisely consigned to the bonus tracks in the Rykodisc edition. Reminiscent of Syd Barrett’s last broadcasts in its troubled incoherence, it even manages to make its steel drums sound sinister. “Femme Fatale” is a woozy but sumptuous incarnation of the Velvet Underground tune; the aforementioned “Thank You Friends” is probably the closest “Third” comes to the Big Star sound of yore, but even this is poisoned by cynicism (is Alex bitterly referring to the fractured, frazzled state of his slowly-becoming-former band?) and altered by raucous, faux-soulful backing vocals. The creaking, creeping terror of “Holocaust” matches anything you’d find in Neil Young’s doom trilogy; a spectral wonder, perhaps it’s “Femme Fatale” returned to Nico, with thanks. “O, Dana” is singalong 70s pop spiked with a massive dose of weirdness, and the cosmic balladry of “Nightime”, a frozen moment of beauty, is somewhat shattered by the slapdash cover of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On” that follows, another track more sensitively stationed amongst the extras on the Rykodisc CD. “Kangaroo” remains a floaty, woozy masterpiece, otherworldly like no other music before it outside the confines of this record. With its squeals of feedback and lush, fluffy mellotron textures, it sounds hollowed out and, literally, gutted, finally collapsing in on itself in a writhing, squally mess. (It’s no wonder that 4AD collective This Mortal Coil appear to have extrapolated their entire soundworld from it and “Holocaust”, both of which were covered on their debut album.) Finally, there’s “Take Care”, the real living end of Big Star, belated and unloved fourth album notwithstanding, Alex dispensing nuggets of hard-won wisdom to prepare us all for the long, lonely road ahead…”This sounds a lot like goodbye/In a way it is, I guess”…before regressing to a ghostly, wordless howl against flutes and strings. This is the song I want played at my funeral, if anybody’s taking notes.
Oh, my. Well, all right, I don’t feel any buyer’s remorse at all at adding a second version of my favourite album to the collection. It’s spotlighted some aspects of “Third” that weren’t as readily apparent on the Rykodisc version (hearing “Femme Fatale” on vinyl was a subtly shapeshifting experience) and it’s got me listening to, thinking about it and mentally revisiting it after years of taking its excellence for granted. No Big Star fan would want to be without the packaging, less than totally thought through as some of it might appear, and the music is of course self-recommending. If your tastes run to anything that could be described as alternative any incarnation of “Third” is worth your time and trouble: it’s the outsider album that never realised just how in it really was.